Translator’s Note

Since the early 1980's, Afrizal Malna has been an active and well-respected poet, theater-maker, performance artist, and critic, writing in Indonesian and performing his works nationally and internationally. Formally marked by repetition and variation, collage, parataxis, punning, dark humor, and alliteration, Malna has been regarded variously as an avant-gardeist, a postmodernist, an obscurantist, and, in coarser terms, a weirdo. What's clear to everyone is the originality and irreducibility of his work.

This selection of poems is taken from the first section of Malna's 2013 poetry collection, Museum Penghancur Dokumen/Document Shredding Museum (originally published by Garudhawaca in Yogyakarta, English translation forthcoming from Reading Sideways Press in Melbourne). This section is titled “Di Bawah Penggaris Kata,” translated here as“Under the Word Ruler.” Though the Indonesian “penggaris” connotes a ruler as in a tool for making straight lines, related to the root word “garis” (“line”), the polysemy of the English “rule” gestures toward the nuances of Malna's treatment of “the word” here. “Rule” (“peraturan”) as edict or regulation, “rule” (“kuasa”) as dominion or exercise of power, “rule”(“penggaris”) as measurer of standardized increments or tool for drawing straight lines.

Malna's handling of “proper” Indonesian (bahasa baku)— the language of public discourse though rarely that of daily social interaction — contrasts the straightforward diction of the poems with their open, flexible syntax, presenting a subversion of sense consistent with their primary thematic concerns: the critique of language and the powers that control and contort it. These concerns and their concomitant formal approaches will likely feel familiar in English translation to readers of contemporary American “experimental” poetry.

However, in the context of bahasa baku, whose standardization and propagation have long been a state mandate (notably under Suharto's authoritarian New Order regime (1965-1998), which established the Center for Language Development in 1975) with the goal of unifying (or ruling) the diverse peoples of Indonesia with a coherent national discourse, sharper political contours emerge. In these poems I read the mapping of proper Indonesian onto nonsensical or defamiliarizing sentiments (“She / sees her age left behind in a used grammar / book. Lamentations of dry pages / either animal or human.“) as a humble but potent swipe at the rule of official Indonesian language discourse. Of course, the English language, the language of the US dominated capitalist/military global order of the past 70 or so years, the “language which gags the world,” and into which these poems have now been translated, is taken to account more directly.

“The triangle between language, the body, and space exists within the tug-of-war between the way poetry is practiced as language and the way politics is practiced as meaning shredding,” Malna writes in the book's afterword. “The poems in this collection don't want to be caught in the latent trap produced by this tug-of-war. The closest position I can take is to trust in my body, to listen to it, and to rediscover the fact of myself as nature-me. Nature-me which opens itself further in considering the variousness of me, the fragility, the instincts of life and death outside the value externalizing process performed by exterior discourse authorities.”

I read and, consequently, translate these poems as attempts to weave the potential space of a “nature-us” from the shadowy dross of politicized language and verbalized politics that constitute the rope of Malna's “tug-of-war.”



Toko barang bekas A dan B menyimpan banyak
bahasa bekas A dan B. Mimpi bekas, kesedihan
bekas, musim panas bekas, semua agak heran
tentang bahasa A dan B. Sedikit heran perlahan-
lahan, mulai berjalan agak dan bertambah heran, dan
mulai berlari menjadi sangat heran, seperti ledakan
lain dalam sunyi sebelumnya: kenapa manusia
menciptakan bahasa antar manusia. Setiap hari
mereka bicara antar manusia dengan bahasa
berbeda-beda. Apa saja yang mereka bicarakan antar
manusia, dari apa saja yang mereka kisahkan antara
A dan B. Apa saja yang mereka selesaikan dari
persoalan apa saja A atau B. Apakah persoalan
adalah bahasa mereka, dari apakah bahasa mereka
adalah persoalan. A dan B saling menatap: adakah
manusia yang tidak pernah menciptakan bahasa?
Bisu dari persepsi dan pisau-pisau pemotong
dokumen bekas

Kipas angin bekas dalam toko barang bekas A dan B,
tidak bisa menggerakkan udara menjadi angin dari
pikiran-pikiran. Tidak berdaya memberikan kesejukan
ke dalam ruang percakapan. Udara bekas, tubuh
bekas, manusia bekas. Membuat bahasa saling
bergesekan antara kata tetapi, maka, mungkin, dan
apabila. Pertemuan makan malam antara sebab dan
akibat. Perpisahan antara ya dan tidak di sebuah
lipatan selimut bekas. Kipas angin rusak dan kipas
angin bekas. Keduanya tak tahu rusak karena bekas,
dari bekas karena rusak. Atau rusak dan bekas karena
gesekan debu-debu bahasa.

Bahasa Inggrisku, bahasa yang menyumpal dunia,
bertambah fasih mendenger percakapan,
terjemahan-terjemahan berlalu. Seperti A bertanya
kepada B: “B, apakah kamu baik?” Ketika B mau
menjawab A: “A, aku baik,” pertanyaan A telah
berlalu bukan A lagi. Menjadi pertanyaan bekas
untuk jawaban yang menyempurnakan masalalu.
B menunggu di depan pintu toko barang bekas. Ia
melihat usianya tertinggal dalam sebuah buku tata
bahasa bekas. Ratapan kertas-kertas kering antara
binatang dan manusia. Bahasa Inggrisku berlari,
memburu, memangsa, menyumpal bahasa ibu
dengan satelit bekas.

Semua yang bekas telah sempurna. Sempurna dalam
tata bahasa yang telah berlalu, yang sedang terjadi,
dan yang akan datang yang kelak berlalu. A melihat
B memakai pribadi bekas A, yang bekas dilihat B. A
dan B kemudian menyalakan kamus elektrik. Agak
perlahan, sangat perlahan lagi, dan jatuh.

Bayangan mereka jatuh menghapus toko bekas
bahasa A dan B menjadi kenangan.


Junk shops A and B hang on to lots of
used languages A and B. Used dreams, used
sadness, used summers, all a little astonished
by languages A and B. A bit astonished slowly
beginning to walk a little and getting more astonished and
beginning to run, becoming truly astonished, like other
explosions in the earlier silence: why do humans
make language among humans. Each day
they speak among humans in various  
languages. Whatever they discuss among
humans, or whatever they narrate between
A and B. Whatever they solve of
whatever problem A or B. Either the problem is
their language, or their language is
the problem. A and B stare at each other: are
there humans who have never made language?
Mute from perception and used
document cutting knives.

 A used fan in junk shops A and B,
can't move the air into wind by
thinking. Powerless to provide coolness
to the conversation space. Used air, used
body, used humans. Make languages rub
against each other between the words but, so, maybe, and
if. A dinner gathering between cause and
effect. A parting of ways between yes and no in
a used blanket's fold. A broken fan and a
used fan. Neither knows if broken because used,
or used because broken. Or broken and used because
the rub of language dust.

 My English language, language that gags the world,
gets more fluent listening to conversation,
translations pass by. Like A asks
B: “B, are you well?” When B goes to
answer A: “A, I'm well,” A's question has already
passed by, no longer A. Becoming a used question
for an answer that perfects the past.
B waits in front of the junk shop door. She
sees her age left behind in a used grammar
book. Lamentations of dry pages either
animal or human. My English language runs,
hunts, preys, gags my mother tongue
with used satellites.

All that's used is perfect. Perfect in
grammar that's passed by, is going on now,
and will come to pass in the by and by. A sees
B wearing A's used personality, which used to be seen as B. A
and B then turn on the electric dictionary. A little
slowly, then truly slowly, then it fails.

Their shadows fall, erasing used language
shops A and B into memories.


Apa kabar? Kalau aku menyapamu de-
ngan kamera mati yang melepaskan dir-
inya dari halaman pertama buku tentang
fotografi. Baik. Kalau engkau merasa aku
ada dalam dirimu ketika engkau berada
di luar dirimu. Diagram sudut cahaya
yang menciptakan gelap dalam fokus-
nya. Klik. Melepaskan dokumentasi su-
nyi, tubuh sakit dan tercecer dalam rak
buku, diagram aku dalam garis-garis ver-
tikal dan diagram kamu dalam garis-garis
horisontal, saling memotong aku di luar
bingkai sendiri. Baik. Suara telapak kaki
kuda di antara bangkai-bangkai arsip. Bau
pabrik dari langit. Klik. Udara bertangan
ketika aku memunguti helai-helai rambut-
mu di atas sprai putih. Sebuah senggama
kematian manusia, di tengah upacara
pemakaman sebuah jaman.

Apakah kematian bisa memotretku.


How's it going? If I were to greet you wi-
th a dead camera that's freed itself from
the first page of a photo book. Great. If
you were to feel me inside you when
you're outside yourself. A diagram of a-
n angle of light composing darkness
within its focus. Click. Releasing silent
documentation, a body ill and left behi-
nd, scattered on the bookshelf, my d-
iagram in vertical lines and your dia-
gram in horizontal lines interse-
ct me outside their frames. Great.
The sound of horses' hooves among the
archive's cadavers. Factory stink from
above. Click. The air has hands when
I collect strands of your hair from the
white bedsheets. A sex act of humane
death, in the middle of an epoch's funeral.

Could death take my picture.


Di sampingku sebuah kamus. Untuk menggulingkan
tubuh. Untuk menggulingkan pakaian. Halamannya,
racun dalam kesunyian. Hanya kamus. Tajam. Berda-
rah. Pernah begitu ribut membuat kawat berduri,
antara ranjang dan kuburan. Hanya kamus. Dari per-
ang untuk menciptakan cerita. Dari dongeng untuk
menciptakan tuhan. Kata-kata berjatuhan ke dalamnya,
mengambil tajamnya. Mengambil darahnya. Matanya
mengambil tatapannya. Membuatku tak bisa melihat
nyanyian panjang tentang kita. Mengerang, seperti
mesin foto copy dalam mulut bersama.


Beside me, a dictionary. To overthrow
the body. To overthrow the clothes. Its
pages poison in silence. Just a dictiona-
ry. Sharp. Bleeding. It'd been such a rau-
cous making barbed wire, either a bed or
a grave. Just a dictionary. From the war
of crafting a story. From the tale of craft-
ing a god. Words fall into it, taking its edge.
Taking its blood. Its eyes take its gaze. Ma-
ke it so I can't see a long song about us. Gr-
oaning, like a photocopy machine
in a mouth all together.


Kebahagian peti meti mengucapkan selamat tahun baru.
Maksudku, peti mati dan tahun baru.
Kata-kata melintasinya dan jatuh seperti burung yang
ditembaki dalam mata pelajaran biologi.
Intelektualitas yang merasa bisa menjadi mediator
antara tubuh dan realitas, terjungkal dari rak buku.
Maksudku terjungkal dan rak buku.
Titik dan koma tersesat dalam perangkap titik dan koma.
Kata-kata telah ditundukkan oleh badai kamus.
Dipisahkan lagi antara badai antara kamus.
Sebuah bossanova di tengah api perpustakaan.
“Tuan Penghibur,” kataku, untuk melihat rohku
di antara kumpulan harga apartemen dan tiket
pertandingan sepak bola.
Baskom dalam timbunan penduduk kota.
Tepuk tangan para pembuat parfum
dan mesin pencetak dari rumah sakit.

Thank you.
Tuan Penghibur.
Thank you.


The coffin's joy in saying happy new year.
I mean, coffin and new year.
Words move across it and fall like birds
shot in biology class.
Intellectuality that feels it could be a mediator
between body and reality, topples from the bookshelf.
I mean topples and bookshelf.
Period and comma lost in a period and comma trap.
Words subjected to the dictionary's storm.
Split again between storm or dictionary.
A bossanova in the middle of a library fire.
Split again between music and fire in the library.
“Sir Entertainer,” I say, so as to see my spirit
amongst a collection of housing costs and
soccer match tickets.
A washbasin in a heap of city dwellers.
Applause of the perfume producers
and a printing press from a hospital.

Thank you.
Sir Viewer.
Thank you.

NOTE: The italicized “thank yous” in the last stanza are “thank you” in the original Indonesian-language poem as well. The English “thank you” is frequently used in contemporary conversational Indonesian speech, at least in the cities on Java with which I'm familiar.

Afrizal Malna is an artist, theater maker, and writer of poetry, short stories, novels, literary essays, and play scripts. His latest books are Pada Batas Setiap Masakini (Octopus, 2017), Pagi Yang Miring Ke Kanan (Nyala, 2017), and Berlin Proposal (Nuansa Cendekia, 2015). He is the head of the Jakarta Arts Council's Theater Committee and was a 2015 DAAD Artist-in-Residence (Berlin). He has recently performed at poetry festivals in Bremen, Maastricht, Hamburg, Kerala, and Yokohama and was a participant in the 2017 Jakarta Biennale. His work has been translated into German, Spanish, and English.

Daniel Owen is the author of Toot Sweet (United Artists Books, 2015) and Restaurant Samsara (Furniture Press Books, 2018). His translation of Afrizal Malna’s Document Shredding Museum is forthcoming from Reading Sideways Press. His writing has recently appeared in Hyperallergic, The Recluse, The Brooklyn Rail, The Fanzine, Vestiges, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Ugly Duckling Presse editorial collective.